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Where democracy shines through

Where democracy shines through

Author: Ravi Shankar Prasad
Publication: The Hindu
Date: January 14, 2009
URL: http://www.hindu.com/2009/01/14/stories/2009011455930900.htm

The voters ignored boycott calls and sent a strong message through the ballot box to separatists in J&K and naxalites in Chhattisgarh.

In the recent Assembly elections in different States, millions of people exercised their franchise. Yet, the verdict in two States, Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, deserve special mention because there democracy emerged victorious in spite of heavy odds. Separatists in J&K and naxalites in Chhattisgarh had openly called for an election boycott. Their language was similar as was the nature of the threat. Yet, both were conclusively defeated by democracy.

Politics in J&K has seen many ups and downs. Certain rounds of elections in the State in the past lacked credibility, and this created lingering grievances. The 2003 elections were perceived to be fair.

The separatists had learnt from their failure. This time their intention was clear: the poll boycott call must succeed at least in the valley. The manner in which the government had surrendered on the provision of land to create facilities for the Amarnath Yatra pilgrims in spite of legislation passed by the J&K Assembly had emboldened them.

It is a different matter that overwhelming popular protest in the Jammu region led to the withdrawal of that decision. Naturally, the separatists as well as their patrons across the border were angry and upset. It is a reassuring fact that the people of J&K overcame pressure, terror and threats and voted in large numbers, marking perhaps the highest rate of polling there in recent memory. The most noticeable aspect was the large-scale participation of young voters whose support the separatists always claimed. Naturally, the leaders of the Hurriyat have been not only surprised but deeply distressed. Some of them have been led to introspect on the need to rethink their entire strategy. Have the people turned down the call for "azadi"?

The fact that Kashmiris in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir live in undemocratic and pitiable conditions was certainly not lost on them. The election results represent a proud affirmation by the people that they want their destiny to shine with India alone. The other indication is that the people want the interests of all the regions including Ladakh and Jammu to be taken into serious account. Hopefully, there will be a new dawn in Kashmir.
Momentous occasion

The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party that has led Dr. Raman Singh to a second term in government in Chhattisgarh is an equally momentous occasion in India's democratic polity. The State is seriously afflicted by naxalism. The geographical location of the State is unique in many ways: it shares its borders with Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand, and also a tip of Uttar Pradesh. This has given naxalites a locational advantage in terms of mobilisation. The area in and around Bastar and Dantewada are close to the Andhra Pradesh border while those around Sarguja and Ambikapur are close to the Jharkhand border. The naxalites wield considerable influence in many of these areas, particularly in the Bastar region consisting of Bastar Kanker, Dantewada, Narayanpur and Bijapur districts. These are tribal-dominated areas.

Naxalites abhor democracy and elections. They had openly called for a boycott of the Assembly elections and warned people of serious reprisals in case of any defiance. As one of those who were in charge of the BJP's election affairs in the State, I travelled extensively in these areas and experienced the overpowering and looming fear as a result of the threats. I had gone to a meeting in Dantewada and the next day the district BJP vice-president was killed in Bijapur while campaigning. Similarly, a Congress worker was killed. In the Ambikapur area close to the Jharkhand border, Inspector General of Police B.S. Marawi was attacked by naxalites and critically injured. The naxalites' strong hostility towards the BJP is well known. The Raman Singh government has taken a strong stand against naxalite violence and atrocities.

Yet, on election day people defied the dreadful call for a boycott and displayed their unflinching commitment to democracy by coming out in large numbers to vote. Many poor tribal voters walked 5 to 8 km to polling stations. The polling percentage in some of the chronically naxalite-affected Assembly constituency areas were as follows: Bastar: 74.81, Kondagaon: 78.7, Jagdalpur: 71.78, Keshkal: 70.56, and Dantewada: 54.68. These figures not only show the sheer courage of the voters but the inherent strength of Indian democracy. No one complained of unfair conduct of elections. The Election Commission of India had made elaborate arrangements.

The results were a pleasant surprise. In the entire Bastar region there are altogether 12 Assembly constituencies, of which the BJP won 11. In the Ambikapur Sarguja area the BJP won nine out of 11. In Korea district the BJP won all the three seats. Dantewada and Bijapur, which saw some of the worst naxalite violence in recent years, elected BJP candidates.

Obviously, the innocent people of Chhattisgarh are fed up with the naxalite violence and they responded aggressively with the only weapon they have -their votes. Since 2000, about a thousand tribals have been killed who opposed or disagreed with naxalites. Nearly 350 policemen have lost their lives in naxalite violence during the same period. About 90 school buildings have been blown up by the naxalites in these areas. About 77 roads have been damaged in landmine explosions. Damage to railway stations, banks, hospitals and panchayat buildings, besides electrical installations and telephone facilities in periodic attacks has been considerable. Nearly 60 per cent of the weekly markets (which are a usual feature in tribal areas) have been closed down because of naxalite atrocities. The tribal people have not been able to send their children to school in these areas, the teachers having fled in the face of repeated threats.
Campaign against Salwa Judum

We have seen a sustained campaign against Salwa Judum camps, but the critics conveniently ignore some fundamental questions: why were these innocent tribal people forced to leave their village homes and take shelter in the camps? Was it by choice, or to save one's life in the face of torture and killing by the naxalites? We hear a lot about human rights and obviously these need to be respected. But what about the human rights of the innocent tribal people who are the victims of naxalite violence? Does anyone speak for them? There should not be double standards. Obviously, the pent-up anger against all this found a powerful voice - which explains the election results.

Congress leader Ajit Jogi had promised to close all the camps if voted to power. The people denied him the opportunity and gave a convincing new mandate to the Raman Singh-led BJP government. The conclusive defeat of separatism and naxalism by popular will is a great achievement of democracy. It will have long-term implications. If the leaders of these two violent movements draw the right lessons from these elections, then a new dawn awaits us. During campaigning, I had continuously appealed to the naxalites to learn a lesson from the Maoists in Nepal and opt for the democratic way if they are so sure of popular support for them. Maybe the Chhattisgarh result will lead to some rethinking on their part.

(Ravi Shankar Prasad, a Member of Parliament and former Union Minister, is the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party.)

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